Continuing with the theme of Euro 2012, we take a look at a player who kick-started Italy’s campaign on Sunday.
Antonio di Natale was born in Naples on the 13th October 1977. A boyhood Napoli fan, Toto moved north at a young age and joined the youth ranks at Empoli. After progressing through the academy di Natale spent brief loan spells at minor clubs Iperzola and Varese managing a combined total of 37 games, and scoring 6 goals at the tender age of 19. However, in the 1997-1998 season, on loan at Viareggio in Serie C2, he came to prominence, playing 25 games and scoring 12 times. He made a big impression at Viareggio, with the Empoli coaches keen to take him back and experiment with him at a higher level. He remained with the Tuscans for another five years, becoming a club icon, scoring 49 goals in 158 appearances, in both Serie B and A. He became Empoli’s main attacking threat and caught the eye of some big clubs when he shone in the top flight. In 2002, he made his debut for the national team in a friendly against Turkey. However, he did not feature again for a couple of years, hindered by not playing for a ‘big club’. In 2004, di Natale joined Udinese Calcio, a major historical Italian club. He successfully linked up with experienced goal-scorers Vincenzo Iaquinta and David di Michele, despite getting a relatively average goal tally of 7 goals. It was a golden season for the Zebrette, finishing 4th in Serie and qualifying for the Champions League. Di Natale excelled in Europe, netting against Lens and getting a superb hat-trick against Werder Bremen. However, once again di Natale did not set Serie A alight, only scoring 8 goals.
It looked as if di Natale might have reached his peak – a decent striker who was promising but never truly fulfilled his lower-league potential. Udinese finished a dismal 11th in the league, despite other teams around them being deducted points amidst match-fixing and betting scandals. At the age of 29 Toto finally reached double figures, scoring an impressive 11 goals in the league. He also received a confidence-boosting recall to the Gli Azzuri under Roberto Donadoni, scoring a brace against Ukraine. In 2006/2007 a slightly less ambitious Udinese side improved on their previous position, finishing 10th whilst di Natale became their star man. The next season Toto came alight, scoring 17 times in Serie A as Udinese finished a good season in 7th, the highest position since the 2004/2005 campaign. 2007/08 was also a landmark term, not only because he formed a formidable partnership with Fabio Quagliarella, but because he gained the Udinese captaincy, and a long contract extension to 2012. The 2008/9 term was hindered by an injury sustained in an Italy game but Toto still achieved a clinical tally of 12 goals, in just 22 games. Udinese again finished 7th. The next season was brilliant for di Natale as he scored a club-record 29 goals in the league. In contrast, it was a poor season for Udinese, despite the inclusion of foreign young talent such as Alexis Sanchez, Kwadwo Asamaoh, Mauricio Isla and Gokhan Inler, as the club finished an awful 15th. 2010 was an amazing year for Toto on a personal level, as he picked up the Italian Footballer of the Year Award, won the coveted Capocannoniere title and also won the Serie A Fair Play award. Furthermore, he surpassed the century mark on his Serie A goals tally.
New manager Francesco Guidolin was installed for the following season and he brought a fresh look to Udinese as an attacking and entertaining style was employed. Di Natale once again excelled, scoring a magnificent 28 goals, firing a young, exciting Udinese side into 4th place and consequently the Champions League. This year, Udinese were once again over-achievers, finishing third as di Natale scored 23 times and led the team as captain, despite losing some of his best team-mates. Last season was also the year that the tragedy of Piermario Morosini (the Udinese player on loan to Livorno) occurred. Di Natale stepped out and promised on behalf of the club that Morosini’s sister would recieve lifelong financial aid, proving that he was more than just the average obnoxious footballer.
Di Natale is an absolute legend at the Friuli and has remained loyal despite interest from ‘bigger’ clubs such as Juventus. He is immensely popular with fans of all clubs and is a genuine idol for aspiring players. A player who proves that “If you’re good enough, you’re young enough”, he scored Italy’s opening goal of Euro 2012 on Sunday. Class.